Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Islamic State Divided: Competing Theological and Ideological Trends

Specials- Hashed al-Shaabi
Fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units), backing the Iraqi forces, kick a billboard bearing the logo of the Islamic State (IS) group in Hawija on October 6, 2017, a day after the troops retook the northern city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Photo AFP

Most of the analysis of the Islamic State (IS) in 2018 focuses on the collapse of its caliphate project in Iraq and Syria and tries to assess the group’s future tactics as a global terrorist and insurgent movement. Less attention has been paid to the theological and ideological divides that have become more prominent over time and are primarily being played out on Telegram, a digital message broadcasting tool.

Broadly speaking, these divides relate to issues of takfir (pronouncing someone to be non-Muslim, which becomes controversial when applied to those claiming affiliation with Islam), ‘excuse in ignorance’ (the idea that someone’s ignorance may be an obstacle to declaring takfir on him for a particular act he commits) and the third ‘nullifier’ of Islam (the one who does not pronounce takfir on the disbeliever/doubts his disbelief is a disbeliever).

From these issues arise questions such as whether takfir is a ‘principle/foundation’ of Islam, whether there is any excuse in ignorance at all, whether absolute ‘takfir of the excuser’ is a valid concept and whether the third nullifier could be applied by series in a chain. By the last idea is meant the following: if X does not declare takfir on Y, X is a disbeliever, and if W does not declare takfir on X, W is a disbeliever, and if U does not declare takfir on W, etc. Potentially, one could have an infinite or very large chain of takfir. To a degree, these controversies are interconnected.

Initially, a more ‘moderate’ trend embodied in the likes of the Bahraini scholar and senior IS member Turki al-Binali held sway, such as rejecting the idea of absolute takfir of the excuser, allowing for excuse in ignorance in certain circumstances (though not in matters of ‘greater idolatry’ like worshipping one besides God) and rejecting the idea of takfir as a principle/foundation of Islam. Over time though, al-Binali and like-minded IS scholars perceived that concessions were being made to the ‘extremist’ trend.

The problem came to the fore when the Delegated Committee (IS’ general governing body) issued a statement in May 2017 on matters of doctrine. The statement in fact marked a reversal from a May 2016 statement issued by the Central Office to Track the Sharii Diwans (a body set up to assess certain IS administrative departments), because the Delegated Committee now affirmed takfir of the idolaters to be among the ‘open principles of the religion,’ which should be known before knowing prayer and other obligations known from the religion by necessity. That idea had actually been criticized in the May 2016 statement as potentially leading to chain takfir – a point noted by al-Binali in a highly critical response to the May 2017 statement. This was so even as the May 2017 statement rejected the idea of chain takfir.

Another concern al-Binali raised was what the assertion of takfir as a principle of the religion could mean for takfir of the excuser. If takfir is a principle of Islam, and so the one who excuses in ignorance in matters of greater idolatry is a disbeliever to be judged like the idolater, what of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who did not takfir someone like Suleiman al-Alwan even as al-Alwan allowed for excuse in ignorance for greater idolatry?

Al-Binali was killed in a coalition airstrike in 2017 and did not live to see himself vindicated, at least in part, when the Delegated Committee retracted its May 2017 statement in September 2017 and issued a new audio series to clarify matters of doctrine, such as rejecting the idea of takfir as a foundation of the religion.

Since that time, three distinct online debates have emerged:

‘Dissenters’: primarily represented in three media foundations – Knowledge Heritage Foundation, al-Maaraj Media and al-Wafa Media. Of these foundations, al-Wafa Media is the oldest. The Knowledge Heritage Foundation is perhaps the most interesting as it has published a large amount of material by IS scholars it reveres (e.g. al-Binali) without IS authorization. The dissenters are characterized by their strong support for al-Binali and other scholars in the organization they see as carrying on the correct ‘moderate’ trend (e.g. a Jordanian called Abu Yaqub al-Maqdisi). Though pleased about the Delegated Committee’s retraction of the May 2017 statement, the dissenters believe that ‘extremists’ still exert undue influence in IS, particularly in its media. The Knowledge Heritage Foundation posts fairly regular updates on what it claims to be the persecution of scholars like al-Maqdisi at the hands of these extremists.

‘Mainstream’: supporters of IS’ official media apparatus. They also accept the retraction of the May 2017 statement but believe the dissenters are suspect for publishing material without official authorization.

‘Extremists’: primarily represented in two Telegram channels, which are critical of IS for retracting the May 2017 statement and issuing the audio series to clarify matters of doctrine. Both channels leak internal material, as the dissenters do, but have a quite different agenda: namely, to try to show that the scholars revered by the dissenters are ignoramuses. Fanack contacted the administrators of both of these channels. This is how one of them described the Knowledge Heritage Foundation:

“Wretched Jahmites … their aim is to make the Dawla [ISIS] resemble al-Qaeda and realize the counsel of Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi and others besides him by clipping the nails of the Dawla and making it moderate to shake its ranks and put an end to it, out of pride and envy.”

This administrator does not actually recognize IS’ claim to be a caliphate. As he told Fanack:

“I ask God to guide [IS], and it has nothing to do with the fact that I do not consider it to be a caliphate, for it is not a caliphate … but it is a Muslim group that was for a time the nearest to the truth on the field.”

As he clarified, by ‘nearest to the truth’ he meant when the Delegated Committee issued the statement on takfir as a foundation of the religion. Conversely, one of the dissenters in a private chat warned that the channel in question writes ‘against’ IS. It is likely that both of the extremist Telegram channels are run by IS defectors.

Yet as interesting as these debates are, their impact on the day-to-day functioning of IS is questionable. While arrests reportedly occur at higher levels in the organization, it may be that many or most of the current rank and file are simply unaware of the finer details of the doctrinal disputes. To see what a major split would look like, one only needs to look at West Africa, where Abu Bakr Shekau was removed from his position as ‘governor’ of IS’ West Africa province, partly for espousing extreme ideas rejected by IS. Since being removed in August 2016, Shekau and his followers have openly been at war with IS’ West Africa affiliate.

While more scholars should be looking into the ideological debates that are playing out, it is probably unwise to raise hopes that such divisions will destroy IS from within.

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